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Sangha News - Hoitsu Suzuki is Eiheiji Tanto

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photo by Barbara Wenger

Article by DC

Hoitsu Suzuki, eldest son of Shunryu Suzuki, has been named the tanto of Eiheiji, Soto Zen's most important training temple where his father, he, and his son all studied. The tanto is the priest in charge of the practice of the monks and is a prestigious position to hold. Hoitsu is the abbot of Rinsoin in Yaizu, Shizuoka prefecture. His son Shungo will take over his duties while he's gone.

Hoitsu's disciple, Robby Pellett, a priest and psychotherapist who lives in Seattle, says that Hoitsu had been asked more than once before to assume this position but had declined. Robby pointed out that the tanto is the father of the zendo, sets the tone for the practice, and how the rules are observed. He says that Hoitsu will be a principle influence on a whole new crop of priests. Robbie says this is indeed an honor and will also be a challenge to Hoitsu because he has to follow the whole schedule of zazen and services just like the new monks. He will be able to visit his family and congregation at Rinsoin a few hundred miles away for a couple of days a month.

I learned about this half a year ago from Hoitsu's wife Chitose. She was not at all overjoyed about  the prospect of her husband being gone for three years. I was really astounded. I'd never thought of Hoitsu as a candidate for this sort of position. He used to always say he hated zazen, but when I was there in January of 2004 he was getting up to sit in the mornings and when I told him I was surprised he said, "I've changed." Robby says he started sitting again over three years ago.

I've always thought of Hoitsu as a priest who took his temple duties quite seriously, as someone who embraced what his father rejected - being a temple priest and taking care of the member families and doing ceremonies. In the past he's been quite critical of his father for leaving his responsibilities in Japan - he's said so in conversations with me and in interviews and in lectures which I have to get around to transcribing or the finding the transcriptions of and posting. I also think that through the years he's come to respect what his father did and to treasure his own relationship with the SF Zen Center.

Robby and I both felt that Hoitsu's new position of tanto at Eiheiji is to some extent a recognition of his father by the Soto establishment which has generally seemed to be perplexed by all the attention given to Shunryu Suzuki. But Hoitsu has slowly developed a reputation of his own in the Soto world which certainly must have taken notice when several years ago he received a medal of distinction from the Emperor for the social work he does in Yaizu. For years Hoitsu has been on some sort of board in Yaizu which hears complaints from citizens and tries to help them deal with problems. According to Robby, a number of people are recognized every year and given  medals by the Emperor at different levels - from a very high Noble Prize type level on down. He said that Hoitsu's was somewhere in the middle. I'm sorry I can't describe what this is about better - maybe in time I'll learn more about it. I can remember Hoitsu going out in the evening to attend those meetings. I also remember him going out to teach Baika class. He's a serious practitioner and teacher of this devotional Buddhist musical chanting.

Robby sees Hoitsu's new position as a recognition of his father, as supportive of the SF Zen Center, for his social work, for his Baika, and for his being active in the Shizuoka prefecture Soto Zen association. Also, Hoitsu is really a humble person and is truly lacking in the stink of Zen. To me, Eiheiji, an astoundingly beautiful and vast temple, can seem like a terribly arrogant place almost smothered by tradition. Hoitsu Suzuki may just bring with him to those hallowed halls, an unexpected and subtle gift.


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